Electrifying vocational trucks will be a challenge, panel says

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Yves Provencher of Provencher Groupe Conseil sees few barriers to electrifying a delivery van. “The only issue is weight,” says the electric vehicle specialist. “It’s always a balance of how much you want to put in in terms of weight, cost and range.” Even tailgates and liftgates are relatively easy to address.

Thinking outside the proverbial box will be another matter entirely.

Vocational equipment as diverse as dump trucks, bucket trucks, and just about anything that uses a PTO will present additional energy demands, making it tougher to strike a balance between battery sizes and range.

Don Moore, Jim Park, Yves Provencher
Don Moore. Jim Park and Yves Provencher agree that electrifying vocational equipment will present a bigger challenge than delivery vans have. (Photo: John G. Smith)

“The energy consumption of the equipment will be extremely important to measure,” Provencher told a crowd during the annual meeting of the Canadian Transportation Equipment Association (CTEA) in Victoria. Any of the energy used for a vocational task, such as the 25 kWh that a bucket truck might use over a day, will limit the power available to travel from Point A to Point B.

Of course, the more the equipment is operated, the less the truck is driving around, he admitted. “You’ll really need to understand the duty cycle to determine the consumption.”

Reefers and dump trucks

“You’re not spec’ing a general-purpose vehicle. These things tend to be laser-focused,” said Today’s Trucking equipment editor Jim Park, adding his personal insights during a panel discussion with Provencher. This makes the vocational spec’ing process decidedly more complex than building standard delivery vans.

“We’re not hearing a lot about our industry,” added Don Moore, CTEA director – government and industry relations. “Somewhere along the way we’re going to be expected to start working with these electric chassis.”

Even the box trucks themselves might prevent special needs when it comes to refrigeration. While units can be plugged in to shore power to pre-cool the cargo area before a trip, other changes might be required to maintain temperatures without sacrificing range.

“Once it goes on the road, what they’re trying to do is minimize the amount of time the driver has the door open,” Park said, referring to the electric reefers that are being developed. This can involve using insulated curtains every couple of feet throughout the cargo area – a traditional option that some fleets have removed because drivers saw them as an inconvenience.

Park also suggested a fully electric dump truck is still well in the future. Simply finding the room for the all-important batteries is a challenge on a frame that already needs to account for things like lift axles. And the number of times a day a box needs to lift will play a role in duty cycles.

Motors and hydraulics

Still unknown is whether electric motors will power vocational equipment directly, or whether manufacturers will use the motors to power traditional hydraulic pumps. “Hydraulics may require a little more energy consumption than having an electric drive,” Provencher noted.

And the questions are not limited to power sources alone.

SAE is still working on standards for the underlying connectors and communication protocols, although the connector standards are expected in the coming year. “Right now it’s basically like splicing wires and connecting to the high voltage, which is not a good idea,” Provencher quipped.

Standards are often developed at a slow pace, even though electric vehicles are being developed at “light speed”, Moore said. “And a lot of the OEs don’t want to share their special firmware,” he added. “That computer has to communicate with other computers.”

While such questions remain unanswered, Provencher encouraged upfitters to begin exploring electrification at the earliest opportunity.

“It’s time to think about it right now,” he said. Yes, batteries will improve, but there’s still plenty to be learned before that happens. “If you want to learn about it you have to put your toe in the water.”

Quebec’s CFTR training centers, for example, are already developing a program to teach technicians how to maintain electric trucks.

“Your customers will be asking you to have some equipment installed,” Provencher said. “You’re going to have to learn the hard way.”

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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